FINDING YOUR VOICE THROUGH THE WRITING OF
How do you discover your writing voice? How do you find what it is that will differentiate how you write from every other writer?
If you think of it in terms of how each of us are distinguished from each other in normal life, the real world, so to speak - appearance, attitude, the way we walk, the way we talk, our history - all of these, among many others, are factors we use to help us distinguish one person from another.
In terms of writing, it is the writing ‘voice’ that is the distinguishing factor. Aspects that make up each writer’s voice are elements such as sentence length, word choice, attitude, use of punctuation, dialogue, etc.
But it goes deeper than that.
What makes your writing voice unique, what makes it completely different from any other writer, is who you are.
Here are three extracts from the opening paragraphs of novels from three very different authors:
BEN OKRI – THE FAMISHED ROAD
In the land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those among us who had just returned from the world of the living.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY – FAREWELL TO ARMS
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.
CHARLES DICKENS – THE PICKWICK PAPERS
The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is to be derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.
Ben Okri is a very spiritual man. Essentially a poet, Okri was heavily influenced by the Nigeria of his birth, and the myths and fables he grew up with. Sometimes categorised as a magical realist writer – a categorisation that Okri refutes, his prose his surreal and beautiful. He once said
‘Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history.’
Ben Okri’s writing voice is everything that is Ben Okri. There is no separation.
Ernest Hemingway’s prose is very masculine, very physical. He was an eighteen year old ambulance driver in the First World War, and saw some horrific sights that affected him for the rest of his life. In Hemingway’s life, and in his prose, there was no room for niceties, no room for the flowery things.
Ernest Hemingway’s writing voice is everything that is Ernest Hemingway, the man and his history. There is no separation.
Charles Dickens luxuriates in the language. His prose is flamboyant, yet somehow a little formal. His books are filled with tales of the poor and the downtrodden – paupers and debtors, and the like – his own early life experience reflected in his writing.
Charles Dickens’ writing voice is everything that is Charles Dickens, the man and his history. There is no separation.
Let’s go back to that Ben Okri quote: ‘Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and their history’.
You can never divorce anything you write from who you are. Anything.
To find your writing voice, it is simply a fact of listening, allowing it to develop, to flourish, to release it from the bounds of how you think a writer should write, what you think publishers want, etc. The truth is, publishers want to hear voices that are unique, confident, unflinching in their individuality. And that is you. Your writing voice is inside you. It has been there all along.
No-one else has ever had your particular life experience, no-one else has ever had your particular emotional journey, your particular way of expressing yourself. You are unique. Therefore, your writing voice will be unique too – if only you’d allow it to speak.
Again, the Ben Okri quote: ‘Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and their history’ [my italics].
Who are you? What drives you? How do you approach life? What are your life experiences? That is all you need to be in touch with. But here’s the thing, you cannot sit down to write with the answers to these questions consciously in mind, or written down on a piece of paper beside you to refer to, or on Post-It notes stuck around your computer screen.
You just can’t.
It simply doesn’t work like that.
All you need to know is that you are different, that you do have a unique writing voice. That it is there, inside, somewhere.
And how do you know? You know because every story you write, every conflict that every character you ever allow to drift onto your page, is in essence, you.
It can be no other way.
Your voice is your AUTHENTICITY. And what you need above all else in your writing, what publishers, agents, readers, what they all want more than anything else, is AUTHENTICITY.
And the way to freeing your writing voice lies in the art of Free Writing – the act of writing without thought or purpose, without fear.
Short stories are a fantastic way to discover your writing voice. You could write half a dozen novels to discover your writing voice, but who wants to put in that sort of work? Or you could write half a dozen short stories, and discover exactly the same thing.
A short story conventionally runs from anything from 500 words to about 3,500 words, more or less. Essentially, a short story is no different from a novel. It is all a question of degree. A short story requires a beginning, a middle, and an end – like a novel. It requires, generally, a main character with a primary goal – like a novel, a setting – like a novel. Some sort of resolution – like a novel.
Like I say, it is all a question of degree.
So, where do short stories come from? Where they come from can be anywhere – an overheard conversation on a bus, an incident in a newspaper or on the telly, an incident in your own life, the ‘What if…?’ scenario. There are many places to find an idea for a short story.
But all these sources are external. Your writing voice is something that comes from deep within you. Deep inside. And that is where we are going to look for the writing of your next short story.
Here we go . . .
To begin, we need a title.
Take a pen and paper, focus in your mind that you are going to be free-writing short story titles . . . now write down, without thinking, the first five things that appear in your mind as potential short story titles.
Okay, so you’ve got a bunch of titles. Now pick one. Don’t think. Just whatever one happens to jump out at you – and one will. So, where did this title come from? Where did any of the titles come from?
Ben Okri’s quote again: ‘Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and their history’.
The title came from you. From inside you. Nowhere else. How do you know? Because everyone will have different titles. Simple as that.
Now, who said it? Who just told you that title?
There is only one answer to this: the main character/narrator of the story itself.
Stay with me on this one, because here’s where it gets a little weird . . .
So who is it, this voice that shouted louder than all the others?
Next exercise . . .
You are going to allow the character who just told you the title of the short story you have chosen to introduce themselves to you. Begin: ‘My name is [wait for the name to pop up] I am [free-write from here]’
And here’s the important thing. Allow the character to speak in the first person. Even if you don’t naturally write this way, just let it flow. Once the main character has introduced himself/herself/itself, allow them to babble on for a paragraph or two, until you get a real sense as to who they are. You now have a title for the short story, and have managed to get in touch with the main character.
Now, what is the story to be told?
Here you need to step away from the main character you have just been introduced to, for just a minute. You don’t want them telling you the story, in case they are a little excitable, you know. Perhaps a little biased. You don’t want that. Not yet. You want an objective view of what the story is about. Therefore you need to engage the third person point of view.
You are going to free-write what this story is about, in just a paragraph or two.
Begin: [title] tells the story of how [main character name] … [free write what the story is about]
Do not write the entire story. You just want a paragraph or two – sort of like the blurb on the back of a book.
Once you have a title for your short story, a notion of who the main character is, and an idea of what the story is about, there is nothing left to do but write the story.
So just write the story. And here’s the important thing. FREE WRITE the story – the entire story. Don’t think about it. Just let it come. Don’t worry about the point of view – it could be first or third, or even second. Allow it to come out in whatever form. Do not censor. Do not edit.
Write till the story ends.
What you now have is a story written in your writer’s voice, in its purest form. As in all disciplines, free writing takes practice. It is a case of tuning your inner ear to your writing voice, and simply writing what you hear.
The story you have before you may well be ragged and jumbled, nonsensical, even. But in there somewhere is a story unlike any you will have ever written. A story unlike anyone has ever written: story told in your unique writer’s voice.
The more you practice free writing, the more in tune you ear will become to the voice(s) inside you, the characters lined up inside your head, just waiting their turn to tell you their story.
Sit down, with pen and paper, and have a listen. You might be surprised.